Midlife moms: What’s age got to do with it?

The message about pregnancy risks after 35 is so strong it could make any woman balk at the idea of ever having a baby.

By Dhara Thakar Meghani

Word on the street (and on the web¹, in doctor’s offices, and generally everywhere) is that there is a high chance for pregnancy complications, miscarriage, genetic disorders, and health risks for women who have babies in their mid-thirties and beyond.

On many medical charts, women over 35 have been referred to as “elderly,” “old,” and certainly, “high risk².” The message about the risks of pregnancy after 35 is so strong in fact, that the anxiety it creates could make any woman approaching that age balk at the idea of ever having a baby at all.

The modern woman is expected to be dually professional and maternal, and women who have been raised with a strong value for education and a career face a true conflict of sorts when deciding the “right time” to have a baby.

There still exists a strong expectation in many cultures that family life be celebrated and perpetuated, preferably sooner than later – and should this not occur, gossip and disappointment abound, questioning the woman’s fertility and her “desire” for motherhood. South Asian families are no exception.

Recent trends around the world indicate that on average, birth rates are declining and families are waiting to have children later in life³. In some countries, this is partly an artifact of economics–rarely can a family comfortably raise children with a single earner in the household.

But try this other ‘radical’ notion: women actually enjoy working. In the US and Europe, women have been the majority of university degree earners for several years now, and in 2009 the number of women in the American workforce outnumbered that of men for the first time during the peak of the financial crisis4.

The truth of the matter is babies cost time, money, and sometimes one’s career. With greater opportunities to advance in the workplace, one can notice quickly that the mothers in the room are fewer and fewer the higher up in the organization you travel. Even for the most maternally inclined women who may experience rampant ‘baby fever,’ there is often palpable ambivalence around making the decision to have a child early on in their career. The other piece to this puzzle is the perspective of the other half and his thoughts about the timing of starting a family – let’s not forget, it takes two to tango.

Sometimes figuring out all these details takes a little longer than expected. What are the costs to purposefully putting off pregnancy?

Despite the claims of 35 being the number to ‘beat’ when it comes to maternal age, studies are starting to reveal there are some positive sides to being an older, first-time mom. Women in this age group tend to be more educated, have more financial resources, and are usually more likely to increase their healthy habits around nutrition, exercise, and stress in preparation for and/or during their pregnancies5. These factors do not override the possibility of complications (for mother and baby) for women who wait to have their first child after the age of 35 or beyond, but they help us paint a more complete picture.

Recent research has emphasized there are many factors to having a healthy pregnancy that go beyond age6. Age, many argue, is an oversimplified way of creating a boundary for determining the likelihood of risky pregnancies and developmental concerns for the baby.

It’s always important to discuss any concerns, questions, and plans about pregnancy with your health care provider, but it’s also essential to think about your and your partner’s readiness to be parents. When you are ready, what happens if for some reason your bodies aren’t?

While no one likes to talk about the possibility of trouble conceiving or miscarriage, it is a reality for many women, not just for those who are older when trying to get pregnant. Are you willing to consider alternatives such as in-vitro fertilization or adoption? What might the shift to parenthood look like for both of you and for your careers?

While you can never be fully prepared for what the birth of a child will eventually bring, being emotionally and physically ready and in agreement with your partner will help you make a more confident decision about timing. If you can for a moment drown out the sound of doctors, family members, and the wealth of advice out there, and listen to that proverbial biological clock inside, it’s ticking a little differently for each and every one of us.

Dhara Thakar Meghani invites you (yes, men that means you too) to share your thoughts and experiences about family planning below. Is it really children vs. career?


¹Paulson, R. (January 26, 2011) What are the risks of having a baby if I’m 35 or older? In BabyCenter. Retrieved October 24, 2012, from http://www.babycenter.com/404_what-are-the-risks-of-having-a-baby-if-im-35-or -older_3127.bc

²Carolan, M. & Nelson, S. (2007). First mothering over 35 years: Questioning the association of maternal age and pregnancy risk. Health Care for Women International, 28, 534-555.

³Martin, J.A. et al. (2011). Births: Final data for 2009. National Vital Statistics Reports: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 60, 1.

4We did it! The rich world’s quiet revolution: Women are gradually taking over the workplace. (2009, December 30). The Economist, retrieved October 24, 2012 from http://www.economist.com/node/15174489

5Yoon Loke, A. & Fan Poon, C. (2011). The health concerns and behaviours of primagravida: Comparing advanced age pregnant women with their younger counterparts. Journal of Clinical Nursing, 20, 1141-1150.

6Hanson, B. (2003). Questioning the construction of maternal age as a fertility problem. Health Care for Women International, 24, 166-76.



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